BRUSSELS (Reuters) - In an entirely unscientific poll, 10 young Europeans were recently asked if they could identify any of the top three candidates in this week’s European Parliament elections. Only one of them could.
The survey of students at the Marie-Haps Institute, a university in Brussels, was a light-hearted exercise, but it illustrated a serious point: no sector of society is more disconnected from European politics than first-time voters.
Yet it is the young who are arguably most exposed to the consequences of EU decision-making: youth unemployment averages 23 percent across the EU and exceeds 50 percent in Greece and Italy. Fallout from the debt crisis risks creating a generation of educated and frustrated young people without jobs.
It is an issue at the forefront of the minds of the top candidates - one they have all raised in almost every speech, debate and town hall meeting of the campaign - and yet their message fails to resonate with most young voters.
“A whole generation in the European Union pays with their life chances for a crisis other people, irresponsible people, have caused,” said Martin Schulz, the candidate for the center-left Socialists & Democrats, during a debate at the University of Maastricht last month.
The response from students and young people in Brussels would not leave him encouraged.
“European politics doesn’t matter much to me,” said Bart Waegeman, an employee of the Belgian government in his early 20s hanging out at Marie-Haps. “Europe is a little too big.”
Sarah Boulanger, the only one of the Marie-Haps students to correctly identify one of the candidates to be the next European Commission president (former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt) was equally dismissive.
“It’s not interesting for us. We vote for someone and then in the end it’s not who we voted for that makes it,” she said.
Their apathy is reflected in electoral statistics. Since the first direct elections to the European Parliament were held in 1979, voter turnout has fallen at every ballot, dropping to 43 percent in 2009. And it has fallen most among first-time voters.
Despite the best efforts of ‘get out the vote’ campaigners and election candidates themselves, there is every indication turnout among first-time voters will fall again at the May 22-25 polls, dropping to around 27 percent.
“Young people have a lot to lose by not showing up this time,” said Adam Nyman, director of Debating Europe, a forum for encouraging young people to engage in politics.
“Back in 2009, people didn’t turn out because they had no idea what the parties stood for, but Parliament has done a fantastic job of reaching out this time.”
Using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and every other social medium they can lay their hands on, the main campaigns have tried to mirror the techniques used by Barack Obama’s supporters to inspire the youth vote in his 2008 presidential campaign.
With the hashtag #knockthevote, a play on #rockthevote in the United States, 58-year-old Schulz has outpaced his rivals in attracting the most Facebook fans and Twitter followers.
It is a work in progress. Whereas the U.S. president has 40 million Facebook fans, Schulz has 125,000.
Candidates are also latching on to the ‘selfie’ craze. Schulz coined the #schulzie, in which his supporters snap a self-portrait with him.
Verhofstadt launched a selfie contest, calling on people to post a #selfEU on Instagram or Twitter. The best selfie wins a day with the bespectacled 61-year-old.
In perhaps a last-ditch attempt at luring first-time voters, the European Parliament has posted a video on its official YouTube page with the hashtag #myfirsttime.
It depicts a young man’s bizarre voting adventures and has gone viral, attracting more than 2.3 million views since it was uploaded on May 6.
It may be that the youth vote will surprise on the day, ticking higher for the first time in 35 years. If it does, the key question will be to whom those new votes go to.
Schulz, his center-right rival Jean-Claude Juncker and Verhofstadt are all aged between 58 and 61 and are veterans of the European political scene.
“They will only reach the young people who were already interested,” said Dimokritos Kavadias, a political science professor at the Free University in Brussels.
Instead, many young voters may choose to back non-mainstream parties, particularly on the left, as they look for more radical solutions to the joblessness and poor prospects they face.
Greece’s far-left leader Alexis Tsipras, aged 39, is a popular candidate. But the right is also a potential home for some young votes.
“Lots of people that I didn’t think would usually be associated with (Eurosceptic) parties, they’re jumping on the bandwagon with UKIP,” said Matt Greg, a student in London, referring to the anti-EU UK Independence Party.
In an online vote aimed at young people conducted by Debating Europe, only 3 percent of the 19,000 voters chose the far right, but the radical left was neck-in-neck with Schulz, each capturing about one-fifth of votes.